Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 31, 2023)
Matthew McConaughey earned his first Academy Award nod for 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club. This remains his only nomination, but at least McConaughey made it count, as he took home the Best Actor Oscar for his work.
Set in Dallas circa 1985, hard-living electrician Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) learns that he’s HIV-positive. Both racist and homophobic, Ron angrily denies this possibility, but he eventually accepts reality.
Though doctors believe he will die soon, Ron pursues treatment options, ones that don’t yet enjoy FDA approval. Ron embraces a mix of not-especially-legal medications and starts the “Dallas Buyers Club”, a group of folks who get each other these drugs by any means necessary.
As I researched the movie, initially I felt surprised that Club became McConaughey’s first Oscar nod. However, when I thought about it, this made more sense.
While McConaughey worked in a variety of “prestige” projects through the late 1990s, his star eventually dimmed. This meant years during which he seemed to make little other than bad rom-coms or action flicks, all of which inevitably seemed to require him to go shirtless.
Club gave McConaughey’s career a major boost. While he doesn’t always make the best choices even now, at least the movie allowed him to come across as an “A”-lister for the first time in years.
Losing/gaining a lot of weight often acts as a way to push actors toward Oscar gold, and that worked for McConaughey. He shed dozens of pounds to play Ron, a big change from his typical Greek god bod.
Whatever issues I find with Club, they don’t stem from McConaughey’s performance. He does what the script asks and creates a believable take on the character.
My problem with Club comes from its fairly trite nature overall. For one, it acts as yet another in a long line of stories that cover topics largely dominated by minority populations but do so from a majority POV.
Granted, this doesn’t follow the normal path here. Usually a story would look at the minority involved from a more distanced perspective – ie, the protagonist would be an audience proxy as someone not formally linked to the main topic.
Club differs because the lead character deals with the primary affliction that prompts the story. Ron doesn’t work with HIV patients from a divide – he’s one of them.
So why do I view this as a “majority take on a minority”? Because Club takes a virus that primarily affected gay men and tells it from the POV of a straight white male.
Since Club tells a true story, it didn’t come with a lot of wiggle room here. Still, I find myself so tired of this kind of approach that I can’t help but feel less enchanted by it.
Club loses most of its points due to its trite nature. We get a bigoted character who loses prejudice as he evolves.
Is there anything wrong with that concept? Of course not, but Club doesn’t develop the theme in an especially smooth or positive manner.
Ron changes from a literally violent bigot to become a true ally but the movie doesn’t earn this growth. Ron just kind of changes without a lot of clear motivation.
Much of Club also devotes itself to an anti-establishment tone, as it comes down on the FDA and “big pharma” relentlessly. Do both deserve criticism at times? Of course, but the film alters facts to deliver its “message”.
The movie promotes ineffective treatments and criticizes AZT, which turned out to actually work. The film notes the last point in a postscript, but after nearly two hours of demonizing, this feels like too little, too late.
All this may’ve reflected Ron’s real-life beliefs and attitudes, but the manner in which Club conveys this information feels misguided at best.
Like most movies of this sort, Club seems well-meaning. Also like most movies of this sort, Club comes across as fairly trite and predictable.